Build­ing a Li­brary

The charms of post-re­tire­ment Brahms en­thral Stephen John­son as he names the best record­ings of the Ger­man’s late cham­ber mas­ter­piece

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - Jo­hannes Brahms

Stephen John­son names the best record­ings of Brahms’s Clar­inet Quin­tet; plus sim­i­lar works to try next

The work

In 1890, the 57-year-old Brahms an­nounced his re­tire­ment: the freshly com­pleted Sec­ond String Quin­tet Op. 111 was, he said, to be his last work. It would have made a mar­vel­lously warm and af­fir­ma­tive con­clu­sion to a com­pos­ing ca­reer that had be­gun the dark and tur­bu­lent depths of Ro­man­tic Sturm und Drang.

But then, in March the fol­low­ing year, Brahms made a re­turn visit to Meinin­gen to hear its fa­mous or­ches­tra. This time he was struck by the play­ing of the prin­ci­pal clar­inet­tist, Richard Mühlfeld. It wasn’t just the pol­ish and as­sur­ance of Mühlfeld’s play­ing that im­pressed him: there was some­thing uniquely vo­cal about it, some­thing Brahms found be­guil­ingly and mov­ingly ‘fem­i­nine’ – so much so that be­fore long he had nick­named his new friend ‘Fräulein Klar­inette’. It also put paid to any no­tions of per­ma­nent re­tire­ment. Brahms’s mu­si­cal imag­i­na­tion was soon work­ing at full stretch again, and in a re­mark­ably short time he had com­posed two ma­jor cham­ber works for Mühlfeld: the Clar­inet Trio, for clar­inet, cello and pi­ano, and this Clar­inet Quin­tet, for clar­inet and string quar­tet. Two clar­inet sonatas were to fol­low in 1894.

Fine as the Trio is (see p71), it’s the Clar­inet Quin­tet that quickly es­tab­lished it­self as a firm favourite among lovers of cham­ber mu­sic. It’s easy to see why.

The Quin­tet has the scale and emo­tional range of Brahms’s sym­phonies, but the man­ner is much more in­ti­mate and lyri­cal, closer to that of the more del­i­cate cham­ber works, the best of the songs and the ex­quis­ite late solo pi­ano pieces. The pri­vate Brahms, the sen­si­tive, lonely melan­cholic, care­fully con­cealed in pub­lic be­hind barbed hu­mour and that im­pos­ing pa­tri­cian beard, speaks to us di­rectly here, as though Brahms was no longer talk­ing to an au­di­ence, but to trusted friends.

Aching nos­tal­gia, some­times veer­ing over into anger or protest, a painful sense of some­thing cher­ished and lost, wry hu­mour and fi­nally a kind of sad seren­ity – all these emerge in this mu­sic with a di­rect­ness that can oc­ca­sion­ally be

The Clar­inet Quin­tet has the scale and emo­tional range of Brahms’s sym­phonies

sur­pris­ing. Most strik­ing in this re­spect is the sec­ond move­ment’s wild, quasi­im­pro­visatory cli­max – a pas­sage that re­minds us how much Brahms loved ★un­gar­ian folk mu­sic, and which hints that he may also have en­joyed hear­ing a Jewish Klezmer band or two.

The sheer sound of the en­sem­ble is cru­cial too. The clar­inet is beau­ti­fully suited to Brahms’s artis­tic and emo­tional needs: although it can soar high and sing out el­e­gantly in its bright so­prano regis­ter, its dark, chocolate-toned lower regis­ter is one of its most ap­peal­ing features, and it adds to this mu­sic’s au­tum­nal, shad­owy char­ac­ter. At the same time, the strong con­trast in tone and ex­pres­sive char­ac­ter be­tween the clar­inet and the four strings means that they can in­ter­act and en­gage in close di­a­logue with each other with­out los­ing any sense of dis­tinct per­son­al­ity.

In­tro­spec­tive though much of this mu­sic may be, there is also great ten­der­ness. As Brahms’s friend, the mu­si­col­o­gist Euse­bius Mandy­czewski, put it, ‘It is as though the in­stru­ments were in love with each other’. There’s also some­thing else, a qual­ity not al­ways read­ily as­so­ci­ated with Brahms – play­ful­ness. It was there in the man him­self, as his friends tes­tify, but in per­for­mance in more re­cent times there’s been a ten­dency to lose sight of it. Per­haps we have be­come too fix­ated on op­u­lent depth of sound, long suave lines and or­a­tor­i­cal grandeur. If so, that’s very much our loss.

The Quin­tet’s open­ing sets the over­all tone deftly with a kind of ★aydn-ish joke: for a mo­ment we could be in a bright, care­free D ma­jor, but then the har­mony twists into the som­bre home key of B mi­nor – it can be like watch­ing a smile fade. The con­trast be­tween those two emo­tional states per­vades the first move­ment, and it can also be felt in the not en­tirely breezy third move­ment and the vari­a­tion fi­nale. But the heart of the work is the Ada­gio, which like the slow move­ment of Mozart’s great Clar­inet Quin­tet makes the ma­jor mode seem more truly heartbreak­ing than the tra­di­tion­ally dole­ful mi­nor. This is the mood Ed­ward El­gar (an ad­mirer of Brahms) summed up beau­ti­fully as ‘smil­ing with a sigh’. But is it a deep, re­signed sigh, or is the smile gen­uine too? That, among other things, is what a good per­for­mance should be able to help us de­cide.

Turn the page to dis­cover the best record­ings of Brahms’s Clar­inet Quin­tet

Mu­si­cal in­tro­duc­tions: Brahms and Jo­hann Strauss II, c1895; (op­po­site) clar­inet­tist Richard Mühlfeld for whom the Quin­tet was writ­ten

Cheer as folk: Brahms was in­spired by Hun­gar­ian danc­ing

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